Nihar Janga, at age 11, made record by becoming the youngest winner of the bee on record at the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, which ended in a tie for the third consecutive year, with Jairam Hathwar and Nihar Janga declared co-champions after a roller-coaster finish. Jairam, 13, is the younger brother of 2014 co-champion Sriram Hathwar.
“I’m just speechless. I can’t say anything,” Nihar said as he hoisted the trophy. “I mean, I’m only in fifth grade.” The 11-year-old breezed up to the microphone with confidence, and most of his words, he knew right away. He looked like the strongest speller onstage, stronger even than his eventual co-champion, 13-year-old Jairam Hathwar, a blue-chip speller whose older brother hoisted the trophy two years ago.
Nihar, from Austin, Texas; and Jairam, from Painted Post, New York, were declared co-champions. It was the third year in a row that the bee ended in a tie. Scripps made the bee, broadcast on ESPN, tougher after two consecutive ties, forcing the last two spellers to get through three times as many words as in years past.
Bee organizers insisted they’d be OK with another tie, but they changed the rules to make it less likely. Instead of a pre-determined list of 25 “championship words” for the final three spellers, the bee instead forced the top three to go through up to 25 rounds. And the difficulty of the words could be adjusted as necessary.
Third-place finisher Snehaa Kumar of Folsom, Calif,, bowed out in the first championship round. Nihar and Jairam had to spell 24 words apiece before it was over. Nihar and Jairam have grown close over the past year, communicating mostly online. They chatted while others were spelling, high-fived after their words and embraced after they won. The timing of Nihar’s misses was almost too perfect to believe, and Nihar denied afterward that he misspelled on purpose. He said he just didn’t know the words.
“I wanted to win, but at the same time, I felt really bad for Jairam,” he said. Both were inspired by their favorite athletes. As the confetti fell, Nihar crossed his arms in homage to Dez Bryant’s touchdown celebrations. The Dallas Cowboys receiver responded with a congratulatory tweet.
Jairam, whose dad takes him to play golf when he’s had enough spelling practice, channeled his favorite player, Jordan Spieth. “When he hits a bad shot, he always bounces back, on the next shot or the next hole,” Jairam said. “When I missed those two words, I didn’t let them get to my head, and I just focused on the next word.”
This was the 89th bee, and while Scripps’ records from early years are incomplete, the youngest known champion was Wendy Guey, who won 20 years ago at age 12. The last to win in his first attempt was Pratyush Buddiga in 2002.
Nihar said he didn’t feel pressure to become the youngest winner for two reasons. First, he never expected to win. Second, most of the crowd’s attention was on an even younger speller: 6-year-old Akash Vukoti. “He did pretty good for a first-grader,” Nihar said. “He’s going to go places.”
Nihar and Jairam’s parents are immigrants from south India, continuing a remarkable run of success for Indian American spellers that began in 1999 with Nupur Lala’s victory, which was later featured in the documentary “Spellbound.” The bee has produced Indian American champions for nine straight years and 14 out of the last 18.